Category: Michael Govan

BP’s Oil Slick: LACMA Woes

A postmodern artwork in LACMA's collection?

A postmodern artwork in LACMA's collection?

If you think the eerie green photograph shown at left is just another postmodern artwork to be found in the collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), then you are not too far off the mark. While the weird image was certainly not conjured up by one of today’s fashionable art stars, it is in a manner of speaking, one of LACMA’s most recent acquisitions, and it has been supplied by one of the museum’s leading benefactors.

In March of 2007, LACMA’s Director Michael Govan struck a deal with oil giant BP (British Petroleum). Govan agreed to accept a $25 million “donation” from BP that would help in the renovation of the museum, and in return the entry way on LACMA’s newly expanded campus would be christened, “The BP Grand Entrance.” At the time Govan touted BP as a “green” company, telling the Los Angeles Times that he accepted the oil company’s money because: “What was convincing to me was their commitment to sustainable energy (….) We won’t make the transition without the help and cooperation of these major corporations.”

Since that March 2007 deal I have unremittingly covered the oily relationship between LACMA and BP – and the story only continues to worsen. The above photograph is not part of LACMA’s collection, though it could be included in an exhibit that explores just exactly what a “commitment to sustainable energy” means to the museum and its director. In actuality the photo was taken by the U.S. Coast Guard, and it shows a broken underwater oil pipe that is presently spewing over 42,000 gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico per day. That particular oil drilling operation gone awry is run by none other than LACMA’s major patron, British Petroleum. LACMA has not acquired a work of art, but the stain of collaborating with one of the planet’s most rapacious polluters.

You may have heard about the tragic fire and explosion on the huge Deepwater Horizon oil rig located in the Gulf of Mexico, if not, ask Michael Govan about it. The oil rig was owned and operated by the Swiss based firm Transocean; however, its operations were under lease to British Petroleum. Transocean was drilling an exploration well for BP when the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and sank on April 26, 2010 – killing eleven workers. The capsized rig, with a platform larger than a football field, broke away from the pipe that connected it to the oil well 5,000 feet below the ocean surface; the broken underwater drilling infrastructure is now pouring out 1,000 barrels of crude oil per day into the Gulf of Mexico. At the time of this writing, the growing oil slick covers well over 3,360 square miles of ocean, and there are fears the massive slick will affect the coastal communities of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida.

BP’s enormous oil slick, less than 36 miles from the Louisiana coast, is directly threatening the Breton National Wildlife Refuge and the Delta National Wildlife Refuge. Located off the coast of Louisiana, Breton Refuge is the second oldest wildlife refugee in the U.S. Founded in 1904 by President Theodore Roosevelt, it is accessible only by boat and it provides habitat and colonies for over twenty-three species of seabirds and shorebirds. Delta Refuge is located at the mouth of the Mississippi River. Established in 1934, its 49,000 acres provides habitat to huge numbers of fish, mammals, reptiles, and birds. If the oil slick were to reach these nature reserves, the result would be a catastrophe of unparalleled dimension. As it is, BP’s oil slick will cause tremendous devastation to the fragile marine ecosystem found in the Gulf of Mexico, and untold numbers of fish, birds, mammals, and crustaceans that live in the Gulf will die.

The Gulf of Mexico oil slick confirms BP actually stands for “Big Profits” and not “Beyond Petroleum.” On April 27, as the U.S. Coast Guard struggled to contain the ecological disaster in the Gulf, BP posted a huge surge in its earnings – a phenomenal increase in profits from last year’s $2.39 billion to this year’s $6.08 billion. Now that BP is glutted with oil and flush with cash, perhaps LACMA’s Michael Govan can ask them for another “donation.” I am sure BP could use an excellent public relations gimmick right about now, so I would like to suggest that LACMA construct “The Grand Deepwater Horizon Exit Gate” as part of their new BP financed campus.

While Govan and BP run for political cover in the wake of the Gulf oil spill, they will not be alone in doing so. Just days after millions of people in the U.S. celebrated the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, what is left of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig is gushing crude into the Gulf in a slick so massive it is larger than the state of Rhode Island. NASA has photographed the gigantic slick from space. And what is the response from President Obama, especially since he has announced a plan to open over 500,000 square miles of U.S. coastal waters to oil drilling – including a vast area in the Gulf of Mexico that has never before been drilled? On April 23 President Obama’s spokesman Robert Gibbs alleged there is no reason to give up plans to expand offshore oil drilling, declaring; “In all honesty I doubt this is the first accident that has happened and I doubt it will be the last.” Perhaps when Michael Govan leaves LACMA in disgrace, he can get a job in the Obama administration.

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 On May 20, 2010, Greenpeace UK launched an art competition (www.greenpeace.org.uk) to redesign the BP corporate logo. In this anonymous submission to the contest, the designer transformed BP’s green sunflower icon into the eye of an oil covered sea bird.

On May 20, 2010, Greenpeace UK launched an art competition (www.greenpeace.org.uk) to redesign the BP corporate logo. In this anonymous submission to the contest, the designer transformed BP’s green sunflower icon into the eye of an oil covered sea bird.

Updates, May 20 through 29, 2010: On Saturday, May 29, the Associated Press reported that BP chief operating officer Doug Suttles admitted that BP’s “Top Kill” effort to stop the oil leak was a complete failure. Suttles commented, “This scares everybody, the fact that we can’t make this well stop flowing, the fact that we haven’t succeeded so far.”

On May 27, national and international media, taking information from BP and the Obama administration’s U.S. Coast Guard, reported that BP’s “Top Kill” effort to stop the torrent of oil from gushing into the ocean was a “success” and that “industry and government engineers had pumped enough drilling fluid to block oil and gas spewing from the well.”

Yahoo News and CBS News both reported that at President Obama’s May 28th press conference on a beach in Grand Isle, Louisiana, an event meant to show the president was “in control” of response efforts, BP bused in hundreds of temporary workers to clean-up oil off the beach. After Obama left the scene, BP dismissed the workers.

May 27, national and international media report the U.S. government’s pronouncement that the BP catastrophe is the worst eco-disaster in U.S. history – with U.S. Geological Survey scientists calculating that the broken BP pipeline is spewing more than one million gallons of crude a day into the Gulf of Mexico, the gusher will no doubt become the worst eco-disaster in world history. Starting on May 20, 2010, Greenpeace UK launched an art competition to redesign the BP corporate logo.

Updates, May 15, 2010: The U.K. Telegraph reported that President Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency gave BP permission to use massive amounts of a chemical dispersant underwater, despite there being no scientific knowledge regarding the ecological dangers posed by such a huge application of the toxic chemical known as “Corexit.” The New York Times reported that to date, BP has applied more than 400,000 gallons of Corexit in the Gulf of Mexico, and it has 805,000 gallons of the chemical on order. The New York Times also revealed that “of the 18 dispersants whose use EPA has approved, 12 were found to be more effective” than Corexit. The toxicity of the 12 alternatives was in some cases “10 or 20 times less” than Corexit. Nalco manufactures Corexit, and that company’s current leadership includes executives from BP and Exxon - LACMA and its director Michael Govan continue to remain silent regarding their ongoing financial relationship to BP.

UPDATES, May 5 through 14, 2010: A National Day of Protest against BP was called for May 12, 2010, with protests held in U.S. cities from Los Angeles to New York City - Both NPR and the New York Times have reported that scientists are saying the BP broken rig is spilling, not 5,000 barrels a day, but up to 100,000 barrels a dayPolitico.com reported that President Obama has “received a total of $77,051″ from BP over the last 20 years, making him “the top recipient of BP PAC and individual money.” -  McClatchy Newspapers reports that “Since the Deepwater Horizon oil drilling rig exploded on April 20, the Obama administration has granted oil and gas companies at least 27 exemptions from doing in-depth environmental studies of oil exploration and production in the Gulf of Mexico.”

[ Friends of the Earth are asking people to sign their online petition calling for President Obama to abandon his plans for expanded offshore oil drilling. ]

The LACMA Train Wreck

Train - by Koons

"Train" - Jeff Koons. Work in progress. The Director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Michael Govan, has compared the $25 million 70-foot locomotive dangling from a 161-foot crane to the Eiffel Tower in Paris.

On November 23, 2009, Bloomberg News filed a report titled “Koon’s $25 Million Dangling Train Derailed by LACMA Shortfall.” The story covered the now delayed collaboration between the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) and artist Jeff Koons, whose monumental “sculpture” titled Train, LACMA continues to insist will be erected at the museum’s entrance.

With a projected price tag of $25 million, the work by Koons - if undertaken - will be one of the most expensive public art projects ever to be mounted. However, the collapsing economy continues to incapacitate museums and galleries across the U.S., and LACMA is no exception.

In a Nov. 21, Los Angeles Times article titled “Los Angeles County Museum of Art is hard hit by recession“, writer Mike Boehm reported that the museum’s endowments and donations shrank from a total of $129.7 million in 2007-08, to $29 million in 2008-09, a stunning loss of over $100 million!

As a result LACMA has pushed back plans to build and install Koons’ Train until 2014 at the earliest, as the museum simply does not have the required financial resources to construct the ridiculous thing.

The Bloomberg article quoted LACMA’s associate vice president for communications and marketing, Barbara Pflaumer;

“We wouldn’t do it unless someone funds it; someone has to write us a check. This is a very tough economy. (….) The train is something on our to-do list. There’s no question we’d like it to happen. It’s a question of whether we can make it happen.”

Some things should just not be made to happen. On more than a few occasions I have inveighed against Koons and the Director of LACMA, Michael Govan, so I will not bore you stiff by reiterating critiques already made - though a reading of past fulminations would provide some necessary background to this story. Mr. Govan has persistently worked at making the Koons project a reality, but one really has to ask - why? Is it that Govan, LACMA’s Board of Directors and wealthy contributors, actually believe Koons to be the preeminent artist of our time? I shudder to think that is so, but no other conclusion seems possible.

Considering LACMA’s shaky finances during this exceedingly difficult economic period, not to mention the hard luck millions of Americans have fallen upon - who can sympathize with squandering so much money on something so frightfully banal and stupefyingly crass? That LACMA intends to commission and install Koons’ Train to the tune of $25 million, is analogous to proposing that our great libraries be emptied of the classics and filled up with romance novels, pulp fiction, and comic books.

There is another aspect to this tale. On a surface level the Koons Train sculpture bears a close resemblance to two other train artworks; these were created in Scotland and Brazil respectively, well before Koons drew up his Train proposal for LACMA. The Scottish and Brazilian train projects are little known in the United States, so a close examination is in order. Comparing the three train projects, one is not so much left with the suspicion that Koons simply lifted his idea from others, as one is given insight into just how much Koons’ Train is totally uninspired and lifeless.

Straw Locomotive - George Wyllie, 1987. A more evocative and far less expensive faux Choo Choo Train. Photo: Glasgow City Archives.

"Straw Locomotive" - George Wyllie, 1987. A more evocative and far less expensive faux Choo Choo Train. Photo: Glasgow City Archives.

Scottish artist George Wyllie produced a public art installation and performance piece in 1987 titled, Straw Train. Wyllie paid tribute to the history of the Scottish Railway industry by building a full-sized steam engine locomotive out of straw. The work of building an accurate replica train from straw took place at the abandoned Hyde Park Works in Springburn, Scotland, where the nation’s first private locomotive company built steam engine trains for export and domestic use. At its peak the massive train factory covered 60 acres, employed 8,000 workers, and constructed 600 trains a year.

Upon completion, Wyllie’s Straw Train was paraded through the streets in a public procession that followed the route real engines would have taken as they were transported to the shipping docks at the Finnieston port. Once at the port, Wyllie’s Straw Train was suspended from the famous Finnieston Crane, a prominent landmark in Glasgow, Scotland, celebrating the city’s industrial heritage. The Finnieston Crane once loaded untold numbers of the massive locomotives produced at the Hyde Park Works onto transport ships for export. Wyllie’s whimsical sculpture remained suspended from the massive crane for several months as part of the Glasgow Garden Festival of 1988 – attended by some 3 million people.

Following the Glasgow Garden Festival, Straw Train was transported back to the Hyde Park Works in Springburn, where it was set ablaze in a public performance. As flames consumed the dry straw, the sculpture’s metal armature was exposed. When the straw was reduced to ashes and only the metal framework remained, one could plainly see that the artist had incorporated a giant metal question mark into the structure – the artist’s emblematic signature but also a query as to the fate of Scotland’s industrial past.

Straw Train had great resonance for the people of Scotland, making direct reference to their proud history and accomplishments even as the artist posed relevant questions about capitalist economic restructuring and the resultant deindustrialization of society. Conversely, Koons’ work is altogether bereft of social import. It fails to challenge or advocate and does not lead to any meaningful introspection, it has no connection to history; in fact it makes absolutely no claims about anything whatsoever, it simply exists, like the faux Matterhorn Mountain at the Disneyland theme park in Anaheim, California. Koons said of his project; “It’s very visceral. It gives us a sense of this kind of power and energy and the preciousness of this moment of life.” Just what exactly does that mean? Such a statement could be used to describe a pile of junked automobiles - if one’s intent was obfuscation. And what can be said of those at LACMA who find profundity in Koons’ gobbledygook explication?

Train at the entrance to Mundo A Vapor (Steam World) theme park in Canela, Brazil. Photo by Arqueos Weiss/Wiki Commons.

The train at the entrance of Mundo A Vapor (Steam World) theme park in Canela, Brazil. Photo by Arqueos Weiss/Wiki Commons.

The popular theme park Mundo A Vapor (Steam World) in Canela, Brazil, incorporates a life-sized steam engine train into its entry way in much the same manner that LACMA looks forward to doing - although only L.A.’s museum has pretensions of presenting “high art.”

Canela is a small picturesque city situated in the mountainous region of the state of Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil. Mundo A Vapor is a charming theme park that presents the history of the steam engine, from toys and crafts to productive technology and train transport – it offers informative displays and fun for the whole family, including a miniature train kiddy ride. The theme park is internationally famous for its unconventional entrance façade which makes use of a full-scale replicated steam engine locomotive; a life-size reconstruction of the 1895 train crash in Montparnasse, Paris. The train’s steam powered whistle actually screams on the hour as the train’s chimney discharges billowing clouds of steam to the great delight of tourists, who crowd around the locomotive to take still photos and shoot videos (one such amateur video can be viewed on YouTube).

Chances are only a handful of people know, or care about, the name of the architectural engineer commissioned to design the entrance façade at Mundo A Vapor, and it is my educated guess that the professional was not awarded $25 million. It never occurs to the jovial tourists flocking around the steam engine behemoth - marooned at the theme park doorway like a beached whale - that the tableau was designed by a specialist; that detail is simply irrelevant. To the cheerful multitudes the train façade offers only a fantastic setting for photographs, nothing more, and that is how it should be seen. If those gathered around the train were told that the locomotive was in fact a majestic sculpture of paramount importance, created by a modern master of unsurpassed vision, and that the objet d’art was worth ten of millions of dollars, they would most likely laugh out loud at the preposterous tall tale.

Photograph of the 1895 train wreck at the Gare Montparnasse train station in Paris. Photo by Studio Lévy & fils.

Photograph of the 1895 train wreck at the Gare Montparnasse train station in Paris. Photo by Studio Lévy & fils.

So then what precisely is the difference between the locomotive at Mundo A Vapor and Koons’ Train? Aside from the fact that the Brazilian train does not spin its mighty iron wheels as the LACMA train is being designed to do, the one and only distinction is that LACMA’s Train is linked to brand Koons; declared by inordinately powerful individuals with exceedingly bad taste to be the finest high-end commodity available on the “art market” today. Museum culture is undergoing a transformation where a sham populism guided by market forces is quickly becoming the norm. Some museums are developing into zones for the appreciation of the kitsch, shallow, and gaudy; there is no better example of this than the relationship LACMA has cultivated with the likes of Koons.

The train at Mundo A Vapor is a real crowd pleaser to be sure, and undoubtedly millions have stood beside it to have their pictures taken, but does anyone think of it as a magnificent artwork? Would anyone in their right mind say of the train; “It gives us a sense of this kind of power and energy and the preciousness of this moment of life”? Well… perhaps some would, just as they might say the same thing about that thrilling roller coaster ride at Disneyland’s Matterhorn Mountain - but that does not add up to momentous art or a thoughtful art experience.

LACMA’s $25 Million Choo-Choo Train

The March 2009 edition of The Art Newspaper reported that the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), is funding the building of a monumental sculpture by postmodernist artist Jeff Koons - at a cost of $25 million. Titled Train, the “sculpture” consists of an actual 70-foot long steam locomotive hung from an immense 161-foot construction crane. If the project actually proceeds, it will become, in the words of The Art Newspaper - “the most expensive artwork ever commissioned by a museum.” It should be restated once again that President Obama’s economic stimulus bill contains $50 million to service the needs of art institutions for the entire United States of America.

In my April 2007 article, Jeff Koons: The Schlock of the New, I detailed the collaboration between LACMA and Koons when it was merely at its formative stage. At the time, the Annenberg Foundation provided LACMA and Koons with funds for engineering studies concerning the feasibility of such an edifice. As it turns out, The Art Newspaper reported; “LACMA has already spent about $1.75 of $2 million pledged by trustee Wallis Annenberg for preliminary studies.” In my ‘07 article I wrote:

“Those who attempt to find anything meaningful in Koons’ productions should simply remember the following admonition from him, ‘A viewer might at first see irony in my work… but I see none at all. Irony causes too much critical contemplation.’ There you have it, the perfect art for 21st century America - it won’t make you think!

(….) Koons supposedly represents the ‘best and brightest’ from the national cultural scene - a sad ‘fact’ I find utterly disheartening and unacceptable. That LACMA can reward this cipher with a high-profile commission and a place in art history does not bode well for any of us. Robert Pincus-Witten, director of exhibitions at C&M Arts, put it this way; ‘Jeff recognizes that works of art in a capitalist culture inevitably are reduced to the condition of commodity. What Jeff did was say, ‘Let’s short-circuit the process. Let’s begin with the commodity.’”

In other words - to hell with art, let’s make money.

Modern art enthusiast and critic, Waldemar Januszczak, wrote an article for the TimesOnline of the U.K., in which he describes his waning love affair with postmodern art. He was specifically writing of the U.K’s conceptual Young British Artists and the Tate Modern, but his words can just as easily apply to LACMA, Koons, and postmodern art in general. Significantly, Januszczak took great pains in his article to describe himself as a booster of contemporary art, writing that “it’s been my life, my career, my sustenance” and that when he offers a critique - “you can be confident it’s serious.” Januszczak wrote:

“What we have here today is a situation that parallels events in France in the 1860s, when the Paris salon became too powerful and the impressionist revolt needed to happen to revive art. The Tate is the salon of today: pompous, arrogant, all-powerful and utterly convinced of its superiority. What began as a force for progress and coherence has turned into a cultural despot that has the government’s ear.

(….) Just as the Paris salon favoured the conceptual over the actual - pretentious history painting over vivid snapshots of everyday life - so the Tate supports art that imagines it is on a higher plane than the everyday.”

It is entirely appropriate for Januszczak to compare today’s postmodern art elites with the entrenched French Academy of the 1860s and its attempts to suppress Impressionism. But LACMA’s patronage of Koons reminds one not so much of the French Salon as it does the insensitivity and pitilessness of France’s Ancien Régime just before it was overthrown by the revolution of 1789. At the same time as American museums layoff staff and cancel exhibits, as galleries go out of business and artists struggle to stay alive, while millions across America lose their jobs, homes, or both - LACMA fritters away tens of millions on what can only be seen as a monument to triviality. How many thousands of artists could LACMA commission with $25 million? How many art workshops could it subsidize in underserved communities? Let them eat cake indeed.

On March 4, 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts released the results of its research on artist unemployment rates, a report that concludes joblessness is not only skyrocketing for artists, but that the artist workforce has “contracted” and that “artists are unemployed at twice the rate of professional workers.” The NEA found that in the fourth quarter of 2008, some 129,000 artists were unemployed nationally, a 63% increase from the previous year. While the NEA report did not give a state-by-state breakdown on unemployment rates for artists, a previous NEA study found that more artists live in California than in any other state of the union (some 140,620 working artists), even ranking above New York, which came in fourth. It is therefore not unreasonable to surmise that there are huge numbers of artists now unemployed in the state of California.

According to the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, California is presently last when it comes to contributing to arts funding. The national average for state arts funding comes to $1.35 per capita - but California’s funding for the arts comes to a trifling 15 cents per citizen each year. The California Arts Council (CAC) is the state’s arts policy-setting agency, administering grant programs and directly supporting arts programs for all of the state’s citizens. It has a budget of only $5.6 million to administrate cultural affairs for the entire state of California.

A February 28, 2009 article by the Los Angeles Times reported that the unemployment rate for workers in the state of California has reached 10.1%, the state’s highest jobless rate in twenty-six years. Statistics from the Employment Development Department of the State of California show that as of January of this year, 1,954,900 Californians are out of work, with 537,000 now jobless in Los Angeles. Those are the official statistics, but how many Californians are underemployed or have simply given up looking for employment? The aforementioned Los Angeles Times piece quoted one economist as saying, “California is hemorrhaging faster than the U.S. economy.”

In light of these facts, a price-tag of $25 million for the LACMA-Koons Train boondoggle verges upon lunacy, and it most assuredly is an indication of an arts institution profoundly out of touch with the realities lived by the vast majority of the working population of California and the nation. I should reiterate here that the base salary of LACMA director Michael Govan is $600,000 while the total annual compensation for a sitting president of the United States is $400,000.

Arts professionals have some soul searching to do. It is transparently obvious why a greater part of the U.S. population feels alienated from and at variance with contemporary art. In short the public’s gut reaction that art has nothing to do with them and that it is only for the privileged few, is in fact an astute observation based upon the circumstances before us. It is high time that American artists begin to create the new works and institutions that will help free the public of such an erroneous opinion.

Armed Guards at LACMA

Armed guards carrying clubs and loaded guns now patrol the new Broad Contemporary Art Museum (BCAM), the latest addition to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. No less than three armed guards have been seen patrolling the BCAM, with one security officer assigned to watch over Damien Hirst’s installation Away from the Flock - a dead lamb pickled in formaldehyde that Eli Broad purchased in 2006 for $3.38 million.

The armed guards do not patrol any of LACMA’s other galleries, where the museum’s invaluable collection of masterworks by artists from around the world and throughout time are housed; only the pricey postmodern collection of billionaire Eli Broad amassed under the BCAM rooftop are afforded protection by uniformed, gun-toting private security men. Is this part of the supposed “visionary leadership” provided by LACMA Director, Michael Govan?

The open presence of uniformed armed men in a major art museum is abhorrant and contradictory to the very spirit of art - there are certainly wiser and more effective ways of protecting museum collections than the filling of galleries with gun wielding sentries.

LACMA hired the armed guards from Inter-Con Security Systems, Inc., which in its own words is a “leading U.S. security company, providing a full range of physical security services to commercial and industrial customers on four continents. (…) Inter-Con has achieved a position of international leadership in the field of diplomatic security provided to the U.S. and foreign governments.” Once can only imagine what this means, since Inter-Con does not provide a list of its clients. I am not the only one to be annoyed by this development. In his article, Under the gun is no way to view art, Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight writes;

“It’s hard to imagine almost any scenario in which an art museum guard might shoot someone, but that bizarre thought keeps bumping around in your brain at BCAM. Needless to say, it has a less than salutary effect on the art experience. As a rule, art museums don’t discuss their security precautions. For obvious reasons, they prefer them to be as unobtrusive as possible. That institutional reticence is what makes this glaring aberration so weird. Visual intimidation by gun- and baton-toting guards shouts that security is a pressing issue — and that BCAM requires more than any museum in town.”

Having set the precedent of introducing uniformed armed security personnel into the galleries of LACMA, perhaps in the near future Mr. Govan will hire Blackwater Worldwide to provide protection for the museum’s so-called “BP Grand Entrance“.